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From Boise

A glimpse inside Idaho Shakespeare Festival

Published about 1 month ago • 9 min read

Have you been to Idaho Shakespeare Festival? It's one of the most quintessential Boise events. Today's story is written by Julie Sarasqueta and she takes us through some of the elements that make Idaho Shakespeare Festival so wonderful. Listen to the podcast episode here. Enjoy!


Idaho Shakespeare Festival

By Julie Sarasqueta

Trying to explain the Idaho Shakespeare Festival to out-of-towners is, frankly, impossible. Sure, it’s a theater that puts on the works of the greatest English-language playwright, along with hundreds of other plays and musicals. And yes, it’s outside in a uniquely Idaho setting, but that doesn’t get to the heart of it, either. Even Boiseans who have never floated the river or hiked Table Rock have made it out to the festival’s Barber Valley amphitheater.

So, in an attempt to explain why this nearly-50-year-old festival is an inseparable part of the Boise experience, I’ve gone on a treasure hunt for a few of the places, things, and people that shepherded it from its DIY roots to its multi-city present and future.

Let’s start the show.

The lawn outside One Capital Center

Back in 1977, the two-year-old One Capital Center (which now houses offices and Kin) was the tallest building in Boise — and Idaho. But its main advantage to Doug Copsey, a Boise High graduate and young actor, was the amphitheater-like grassy area just outside the building. Copsey was keen to bring professional theater to the City of Trees, and why not? Boise State was home to a group of talented young actors, set designers, costume designers, directors, and more, but if they wanted to make a living after college they’d have to either quit acting or move to a big city. Why not build a professional theater company here?

Copsey and his fellow theater lovers had a lot of enthusiasm and more than a few obstacles. They couldn’t afford to pay the rights to “Hair,” the uber-popular musical that was their first choice for a production. They had zero cash to rent a theater. All they could count on, really, was $1,000 from Copsey’s own pocket — and imagination. But where the owners of One Capital Center saw a landscaping feature, Copsey saw a stage. Doug and Arthur “Skip” Oppenheimer, the developers behind the building, agreed to let Boise’s newest theater company produce their first show on the lawn. Doug Oppenheimer came through with a loan of $3,500, and Copsey and crew sourced a (free) play from public domain: Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”

By the end of the run, 3,500 people had flocked to the lawn — a tradition echoed in the hillside seating at ISF’s current home on Warm Springs Avenue. Although they didn’t yet have a name, the Idaho Shakespeare Festival was born.

Parkcenter Boulevard

For many years, the story of the Idaho Shakespeare Festival was one of searching. After leaving One Capital Center, the company found a home at what is now The River Club golf course — but only for a few years. By the spring of 1984, the organization (now known as the Idaho Shakespeare Festival), had lost its lease.

Luckily, the group was saved by the power of potatoes. Not joking.

Ore-Ida Foods, purveyors of famous frozen potatoes, was part of a trio of corporate headquarters located on Parkcenter Boulevard that leased ISF bare ground and a parking lot for $1 a year. Mark Hofflund, ISF’s longtime managing director, calls it “the best $14 investment we ever made.”

There’s a reason the festival has never had an indoor space. For Hofflund, it’s a continuation of how the original viewers of Shakespeare’s plays would have experienced theater.

“A lot of these plays are meant to be done in daylight, with reference to the places that you have to form in your imagination,” he says. “Well, if you're outside and you’re looking at nature, you’re glorying and reveling in the world around you, the physical world of outside. You’re not in a Renaissance dark little space lit by lights, as the theater became hundreds of years later. It somehow connects you to nature in a much more immediate way.”

That connection to nature would become a defining part of the Idaho Shakespeare Festival experience.

Wood ducks (and raccoons, and deer, and foxes, and …)

When Hofflund became the managing director over 30 years ago, he assumed ISF would need to build an indoor theater. Artistic Director Charlie Fee quickly disabused him of that notion.

“Charlie said, ‘When you get here, you’ll understand how this audience has been built,’ ” Hofflund says. “ ‘It’s been built to be outside.’ It’s all about having a picnic under the stars — frankly, under the sun, until the tomb scene in ‘Romeo and Juliet.’ ”

Finding a permanent home to take the place of the Parkcenter location required a migraine-inducing amount of searching and planning. The place had to be outdoors and in a beautiful setting: those factors were non-negotiable. Hofflund says ISF looked at 40 outdoor locations, as far west as Eagle and as far east as their now-beloved home in the Barber Valley. At the time, the site on Warm Springs Avenue was far from the crowd, with just Harris Ranch (the actual ranch, not the housing development), the Golden Dawn Mobile House Park, and the much-mourned Ben’s Crow Inn.

The Idaho Foundation for Parks and Lands invited ISF to use the land in a partnership, along with the Idaho Department of Parks and Recreation, that continues to this day. A few years ago, Parks and Lands and the festival joined forces to raise $2 million to purchase 12 acres and head off a 43-home residential subdivision that would have crept too close to comfort to ISF.

That space is now the Gateway Reserve. It once held wastewater lagoons, but now it is home to native plants and thousands of birds, including those wood ducks. And raccoons. And deer. And foxes.

Eventually, biking and walking paths will crisscross the area. In the meantime, though, you have a great chance of seeing the interplay between wildlife and the festival onstage, where birds have been known to land during performance and skunks have tottered down the aisle while audiences crossed their fingers.

Danny Peterson’s Converse sneakers

You might know Danny Peterson’s name from his eponymous theater at the Morrison Center, or maybe you saw him in one of the 26 seasons he played The Porter in ISF’s production of “Macbeth,” or perhaps you were a kid who saw him in a touring Idaho Theater for Youth play. It seems that everyone who knew Danny Peterson loved him, which is why the theater community and audiences alike were gutted by his unexpected and untimely death at 55 in 2008.

A pair of his Converse sneakers still hangs backstage at the Shakespeare Festival, and actors touch the shoes for luck before every performance.

Sara Bruner, a veteran of the festival and the next producing artistic director (more about that transition in a minute), says the tradition speaks to the tight-knit nature of the Idaho Shakespeare Festival.

“I think that we have those superstitions that are just about the touch, the acknowledgement,” she says. “And in some ways, I think it’s less about superstition, and more about acknowledgement of the long line of artists that you’re in, and that you get to be part of that continuum. And that this is your moment on the continuum.

“And if you’re lucky, you’d be the kind of person whose shoes got hung above the door in the green room.”


Sponsored by Boise Philharmonic

Have you ever seen a philharmonic perform in a pub? Join Boise Phil for its annual Boise Phil Pub Crawl this Friday, April 26th!

Gather your friends and family and toast to live, local music. Boise Phil’s chamber ensembles will perform at three downtown Boise pubs from 6-9pm. Here's the schedule:

  • 6-7:30pm at Mad Swede Brew Hall
  • 6:45-8:15pm at Barbarian Brewing
  • 7:15-8:45pm at Boise Brewing
  • 8:15-9pm at Pengillys Saloon

Follow the sounds of music or stay put and enjoy the show. More info here!


Paper crowns

Kids don’t need fancy costumes or grand sets to bring theater to life — all they need is a paper crown and some imagination. Thousands of kids have proven that over the years at the summer camps produced by the Idaho Shakespeare Festival.

Kids as young as 3 can learn The Bard’s plays at these popular summer programs. In fact, a child can be involved in ISF camps from preschool all the way through high school graduation. The goal is to make Shakespeare accessible, fun, and a lifelong passion, whether kids continue with theater or not.

The pinnacle of the summer camp experience is the 10-week Apprentice Program, which lets high school students take a deep dive into acting even work backstage during season productions. Think of it like a farm team for drama kids.

Camps take place at the School of Theater Building on 8th Street, and they fill up fast, so be sure to get those applications in.

Boxed dinners

Every ISF performance is a chance for a picnic. The festival has always allowed folks to bring their own food and beverages, and the sounds of wine tinkling into plastic glasses and picnic boxes being unpacked blend in with the voices of the actors onstage. This year, Lisa Peterson of A’Tavola, who long had a presence at the festival, returns with Shakespeare’s Marketplace. ISF is calling it a grab-and-go extravaganza where you can fill up your picnic basket from a selection of well-stocked goodies.

Those Wooden Folding Chairs

They’re simple, they’re free to rent, and they have single-handedly saved the backs of thousands of festival goers.

The Audience

Forty-seven years ago, the idea of a professional theater company with an annual attendance of more than 75,000 was more fantastical than even “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” But the audience, Bruner says, is what makes ISF special.

“The connection that our theater has to the community is completely unparalleled compared to what I’ve seen in other places, and that’s meaningful on a lot of levels,” she says. “It’s meaningful because it's a theater and theaters don’t normally residence in a community. Usually people are all about sports or all about, you know, X, Y, and Z. And they’re wild about the Shakespeare Festival! That’s totally unheard of.”

Sara Bruner

When Bruner was growing up in Burley, the festival’s traveling company visited her school. It was her first exposure to both professional theater and Shakespeare, and that was that. She was hooked.

“What it did for me is that it opened up a world of possibility and an understanding of what could be, and presented it to me in a way and in a space that I couldn't have been delivered otherwise,” she says. “I mean, I was just going about life in school. And then one day these actors showed up and told the story, and for me, it was really — it was about theater, but it was also just about possibility and potential and having exposure to something that I hadn’t had before.”

She attended Boise State University and took classes from Charlie Fee, the festival’s current artistic director and the person she’ll take the reins from at the end of the 2025-2026 season when Fee retires. Thanks to a unique tri-city alliance, she will also become the artistic director for the Lake Tahoe Shakespeare Festival and Great Lakes Theater in Cleveland. The three groups develop and rotate productions, so Bruner spends summers in Boise and Tahoe and the winter and spring in Cleveland. The alliance alleviates costs for all three non-profit companies.

“I have wanted a job like this for a very long time and I didn’t dare to dream that big,” Bruner says. But Fee believed in her, she says, and she’s been learning the intricacies of helming three companies — something that really isn’t done – from Fee himself.

“It’s really exciting and it’s really humbling,” she says. “I’m excited about it. Being a leader is hard and it’s messy, but I’m ready. I’m happy to be the person who has the reins and to try to do good and do no harm.

“That’s the goal. Just leave it better than you found it.”

The 2024 season of Idaho Shakespeare Festival kicks off with “The Merry Wives of Windsor” on May 24. A full schedule and tickets are available on the festival’s website.

Thanks for reading!

With love from Boise,

Marissa

This story was written by Julie Sarasqueta, a writer and tarot reader who lives in Boise.

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A weekly newsletter & podcast about what's going on in Boise, Idaho. Every week we share stories about people, places, history, and happenings in Boise.

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